Intimate Politics
At Your Service: The Role of the Historian in Contemporary Reproductive Rights Debates

At Your Service: The Role of the Historian in Contemporary Reproductive Rights Debates

A new wave of frenetic reproductive puritanism appears to be sweeping the globe. From Trump’s global gag, which has widely been heralded as a “devastating blow for women’s rights,” to the rollback of access to legal abortion in countries such as Chile, reproductive politics are defining administrative agendas. But in lamenting the state of current affairs, we must also celebrate our victories. In May, Ireland voted overwhelmingly to repeal the eighth amendment, and around the world there are groups that are vehemently challenging attempts to curtail reproductive freedoms.

One such group in South Africa is the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition (SRJC). While the SRJC portfolio concerns the decriminalization of sex work, queer health, adolescent sex and reproductive health, hormonal contraception and HIV, their most high-profile current campaign concerns access to safe and legal abortion. I met members of the SRJC, headed by Marion Stevens and Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, on a research trip to South Africa earlier this June where I spoke to them about my research on the history of the controversial contraceptive injection, Depo-Provera.

In 1987, apartheid South Africa was forced to resign from the International Planned Parenthood Federation. The pariah state’s expulsion was, in part, due to the efforts of the women’s section of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) who led a three-year campaign against the state’s racialized promotion of Depo-Provera. If, in the mind of apartheid’s ideologues, the white woman’s duty was to produce children to “correct” the country’s population imbalance, then the perceived hyper-fertility of black women was to be truncated at all costs. Depo-Provera was therefore a crucial tool in this war of numbers, being adopted in 1973, one year before the National Party launched its Family Planning Program.1 By 1976, the country had 2,045 Family Planning clinics, and from 1973 to 1977 the budget for “family planning” services increased by 266%.2

Depo-Provera injection. (Ciell/Wikimedia Commons)

While increased access to family planning measures may seem emblematic of a “liberalizing” attitude towards sex, sexuality, and women’s reproductive labor, “the public provision of family planning services in South Africa was overtly political.”3 In particular, the AAM campaign argued that the great majority of black women were given Depo without their consent, with the injection frequently described as a “vitamin” by health professionals.

Fast-forward to 2018 — 24 years since the country transitioned to democracy — and global NGOs and agencies are still falling over themselves to market Depo-Provera as “injectable development.”4 Despite its dubious history, a 2015 UN report noted that “short-term and reversible methods, such as the pill, injectable and male condom, are more common than other methods in Africa.”5

In addition, although greater access to family planning measures has been a key priority of the African Union’s Policy Framework for The Campaign on Accelerated Reduction on Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA), in the African context, the rhetoric of reproductive “choice” is often divorced from the local situation. Most worryingly, women are still given Depo-Provera without their explicit consent.

While historical research offers no easy resolutions to these complicated issues, the historian does have a role to play in shaping the nature of contemporary debates. In the first instance, historical research can provide the clinician and lobbyist with a longer-term picture of birth control. Doing so sheds light on the relationships between the agency of individuals, state powers, and external groups. Secondly — and as anyone who has ever given a public lecture in South Africa will tell you — as researchers we have so much to learn from people who are active in the fields of reproductive healthcare.

For instance, my understanding of the historical contingencies that have shaped access to birth control are heavily influenced by the current debates regarding the country’s abortion laws. While the context and the details seem to change, one thing remains clear: the state has never trusted black women to make autonomous decisions about controlling their reproductive labor. As Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng so eloquently put it: “women in South Africa don’t have choice, they are still making desperate decisions.”6 As a community committed to reproductive justice we must therefore fight until reproductive choice has become a reality in the Southern African region.


  1. Susanne Klausen, Abortion Under Apartheid (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 198. Return to text.
  2. “International Contraception and Abortion and Sterilisation Campaign Information,” no. 6 (1981), 1, Papers of the British Anti Apartheid Movement, MSS AAM 351, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Return to text.
  3. Johannes Norling, “Family Planning and Fertility in South Africa under Apartheid” (Unpublished paper), accessed June 30, 2016. Return to text.
  4. Emily Callaci, “‘Injectable Development’: Depo-Provera and Creation of the Global South,” Radical History Review 131 (2018), 82-104. Return to text.
  5. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, “Trends in Contraceptive Use Worldwide” (2015), 2, accessed January 4, 2018. Return to text.
  6. Personal correspondence with author, July 4, 2018. Return to text.

Dr. Kate Law is currently writing a social history of Depo-Provera during apartheid, and is Assistant Professor/Nottingham Research Fellow, at The University of Nottingham, UK. You can find her on Twitter. Kate wishes to thanks Marion Stevens, Tlaleng Mofokeng, and the editors of Nursing Clio for their help in preparing this piece.